2016 is already a historic year for Iran and diplomatic relations. Vice President and Head of the Environment Protection Organization Dr Massoumeh Ebtekar discusses the country’s global position, its resources and recent history as it seeks to create “hope and optimism on the basis of true partnerships by working together, creating opportunities for business, for employment, for justice, for equality.”
On February 11, Iran celebrated the 37th anniversary of the Islamic revolution. On January 16, Implementation Day lifted all nuclear related sanctions and the reactions from the international community were on the positive side. How important are such historical moments for the progress of Iranian economy and society?
The 37th anniversary of the Islamic revolution signifies a very important occasion for Iranians from all walks of life, from all different political orientations, who all took part in this very joyous ceremony and march we had in every city, including the capital of Tehran. Also in February we had the ceremony for the official medals of honor awarded to Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif, Minister of Defense Hossein Dehghan, Head of the Atomic Energy Organization Dr Ali Akbar Salehi, and the whole negotiation team for the nuclear agreement. They are heralded as national heroes in a sense, due to what they have done. It is a very important milestone in Iranian history. It is probably one of the first instances where a country has adopted Chapter VII resolutions and the sanctions lifted – a historic breakthrough. It is good to mention that this was accomplished not through force or violence, but through negotiation and diplomatic channels, which is a very important experience, not only for Iran, but also for the world.
To be able to resolve an outstanding conflict, which was exceptionally complex with different social, economic and political applications for Iran and the region, is a breakthrough, and as you mentioned, it’s important for Iran. It is not necessarily to be considered as the only vital factor or the only solution to Iran’s economy, because we have internal issues, but we need to rely on our immense human resources, particularly the educated elite. Iran ranks fifth in the world in terms of engineer graduates and is one of the most highly educated countries in terms of the young population. Also, the tremendous wealth of the resources that we have, not only the energy resources, natural gas and oil, but also a variety of natural beauties and attractions with the cultural heritage of Iran. This puts Iran in a very unique position, notwithstanding the geopolitical position of Iran.
Iran has always been at the crossroad of civilizations and cultures and contacts, and we hope to be able to play that role now for our own people; being able to improve economic conditions and employment and to meet the general expectations of the people, particularly the young generation, is very challenging.
On the other hand the deal can facilitate addressing regional and international issue and allow Iran to play a role in bringing back security, peace and stability to the region; a very important [prospect] not only for the continent, but for the world in a sense. [Trouble] has now been spilling over into Europe for many months and it will continue. Violence and terror will continue to spread if it is not properly dealt with proper political, cultural and political leverage that I think Iran can have and can apply to the region.
I believe that Dr Javad Zarif still has a long way ahead in terms of being able to change the current perceptions, because there has been an active campaign to disseminate negative messages about Iran for a very long time now. From the beginning of the Islamic revolution, but even now, Iranophobia is a strategy that certain countries are trying to push forward more frequently in order to create a sense of fear and mistrust.
I think that, following the nuclear agreement, this has changed a lot. We still have to work in terms of clarifying many of the issues that we have inside Iran, and many of the positions that Iran adopts on both regional and international issues. That dialogue has to go on and that is very important, but Iran will be a major player in the global markets for sure, in terms of oil and gas, but maybe even more in terms of its human resources.
In terms of green technologies, Iran is a very suitable location for investments in solar energy with all the necessary parameters for solar power plants – something that many ambassadors have noted down in their feasibility studies. There are plenty of opportunities for investment in this area supported by a good solar and natural gas energy mix, and a young and well-educated workforce of engineers in the country.
We have already received a lot of solar and renewably energy investment proposals. This is certainly one of the areas where we will deal with the world in terms of new and green technologies to improve greenhouse gas emissions, to control air pollution, and to produce clean energies. I believe Iran will be a major focus of attention.
Could you tell us more how the Environment Protection Organization fits in the new vision of a green economy outlined by Iran’s Supreme Leader and President Hassan Rouhani?
The Department of the Environment, as we call it, is the highest organizational body under the direct supervision of the President, dealing with environmental issues in Iran. In addition to overseeing regulations and monitoring the different parameters of the environment, we also deal with promoting environmental technologies. We have now actually materialized the concept that we had years before through the revival of the National Environmental Fund.
We now have a National Environmental Fund. This is a Green Fund created as an accelerator for green technologies and environmental technologies, and this Green Fund, or the National Environment Fund, will work with both national and international investors on projects related to the improvement of environmental standards in existing industries that need to make necessary changes or adaptations. Examples include sewage, waste management or energy efficiency programs, as well as new technologies for industries such as electric or hybrid cars, solar energy, waste management plants, waste-to-energy plants, or recycling technologies, as well as many other issues.
Technologies concerning the optimization of irrigation methods for the agricultural sector are also very important to us. Issues like management and allocation of water resources for the restoration of our lakes, of our wetlands, are equally important. These are just some of the areas we deal with through the Environment Fund and through activities like national or international exhibitions. We hosted the Iran International Environment Exhibition at the end of February. We had three or four ministers, including European, attend, as well as over 400 national and international corporations attending and taking part. We had a large booth for the NGOs so that the Iranian civil society can take part in that exhibition. It was a very important event. We had a technology market, or what we call a Fun Bazaar, and was very exciting for those who are interested both in trade and exchanging ideas and technologies, but also for those who are looking forward to investing in new opportunities in Iran. This international exhibition was a major event for us, and we worked hard to make that event a new opportunity for investment in the environment of Iran.
What are your expectations following this international conference?
We expect new partnerships to be made. I’m sure that many corporations will find opportunities for investment to work together and look for solutions and partners in different activities, both in Iran and also in other countries in the region. There are a lot of opportunities and I think that the private sector in Iran is very keen, according to what I have seen.
I recently visited Italy, France, Norway, Finland, and Poland during the past two years and I have met with major private sector players and investors from those countries, and all of them are very interested to come to Iran and to invest, particularly in new technologies and green technologies, or to bring their technologies to the Iranian markets. This is a very important opportunity for all.
What specific technology or green technology would you like to attract?
Waste management is a very important area. In our northern provinces, Gilan and Mozandaran, we have difficult current conditions in terms of waste; hence the opportunities for investment in waste management. Water and wastewater treatment are also central for Iran, a country where we have thousands of small cities that need facilities for water and wastewater treatment. This is economically very feasible because treated water can be used again within the agriculture and industrial sectors, explaining why there is a market for buying that water now.
Also, energy efficiency is very low, even in the industrial sector, but even more so in the urban residential sector. We need to work on our residential buildings, as visible gains can be made from improving energy efficiency in the urban sector. The government is working to make that economically feasible. For example, home inspection of heating or cooling systems to make sure that energy efficiency is optimized. This is a great business, because in Tehran you have 2 million residential buildings or complexes. People understand how much their bills will be reduced once they optimize their energy uses, and that is going to be a very lucrative market for engineers who are experts in optimizing energy use and energy consumptions in buildings. This is one area where we are looking forward to attract investment and cooperation, both at the local and international levels.
Since the Islamic revolution, you have held numerous public positions in government and media, and have somehow inherited Iran’s voice towards the West. Could you tell us your view on the power of the media in geopolitics today, and what exactly do we need to understand by the concept of ‘Iranophobia’?
The power of the media is tremendous; it shapes minds and mentalities, but also lifestyles and markets as well. The media can affect not only business and markets, but it can also affect the environment. The media determines how people consume, how they live, and how sensitive they are on issues like pollution, climate change and biodiversity, because the media cannot shape people’s perceptions on for example how we behave towards our forests, towards our biodiversity, towards our wildlife.
The media has a very important role in shaping people’s mentalities. Sometimes, the problem that we have in dealing with the media is that if they are only focused on their profits or one side of the story, we forget the importance regarding the challenges facing the environment, which is a major challenge. That is where we are losing everything. That is why we are losing our resources, our health and so much more.
We have to understand that and to bring that understanding and awakening among the media, that today we are facing with very important issues.
Sometimes it is also political because the media can instigate strife, for example ethnic strife, religious strife. Sometimes they can create divisions, and create hatred, and on the other hand they can create partnerships and bring out more understanding. They can be divisive, or they can be unifying, which is very important in today’s world, because we are facing an increasing threat of violence and extremism and a lot of that goes back to misunderstandings.
There is the issue of Daesh and the very negative images about Islam they are trying to portray by using the media. It is very distorted, very wrong. It has nothing to do with the basic teachings of Islam, nothing. They use the words and terminology of ‘Islamic State’ and it is very well received by some of the Western media. It seems that there is this hidden intention to give the audiences a sense of connection between the religion of Islam and the Islamic State.
The media has a leading role in creating stability, security, and understanding of our own people’s orb. For that reason, it is a very powerful tool. It is very important that those working in the media, or dealing or guiding or leading the media, have that ethical approach, or prophet-oriented approach while still dealing with financial pressures. Taking an ethical, human approach is very important in today’s world, because ultimately we are all living in the same ship. If the ship has a hole in it, we ultimately all have to find a solution together. Whether it be environmental degradation, climate change, destruction of natural habitats, or be it war, violence and extremism, this is our planet Earth. We are all living together on the same planet and there is no isolated island of peace and stability. Such concerns easily and quickly spread from one region to another as we saw with the migration from Syria to Europe, which has brought instability and terror inside Europe, in the heart of Paris.
It is very important to work together to make partnerships for understanding, for resolving these issues in a logical and cultural approach, and the 5+1 negotiations proved that the most difficult conflicts could be resolved if there is a will, a political will, and if there is patience, which is very important. Both sides need to accept and understand they have to work together, they have to give and take on issues, but ultimately they have to understand each other. That is the key.
What is creating despair, fuming violence and extremism in today’s world is that some people in certain countries, in certain parts of the world, feel there is no hope. We have a role to play, which is to create hope and optimism on the basis of true partnerships by working together, creating opportunities for business, for employment, for justice, for equality.
You were Iran’s first female Vice President and have been described as role model who is always looking to actively promote the environment, international understanding and women’s empowerment, which brought you to hold numerous high-level positions in your professional careerled What is the driver that motivates you to continuously work, progress and serve Iran?
We have a lot of hope for the future and I think in part that is due to Iran’s lively young generation. They create a lot of hope; their aspirations give us energy to work, particularly in creating a better environment, the future of our planet Earth, but also for peace. By addressing these issues properly, others will benefit as much yourself. This gives you lots of energy to move forward. I think that giving to others, and foremost to yourself, is a blessing of God.
We’ve always faced very difficult challenges since the beginning of the revolution, when we were sometimes misunderstood. The takeover of the American Embassy is a good example, which is why I wrote the book “Takeover In Tehran”.
It describes the mentality that the Iranian students at that time had: their reasons, their intentions for what they did under those circumstances and historical events. It is interesting to mention that, in the past, some European ministers told me that reading the book has helped them to better understand Iran’s position. Recently, Western diplomats thanked me as they told me that my book clarified the context of this event within history as well as global international relations, not only relations between Iran and the US.
Despite the fact that many years have passed, it is meaningful to make those connections even in difficult times of history that we went through. We need to make the effort to understand – that is what communication, negotiation or dialogues are about. Dialogue means making those connections in difficult circumstances. If we could have had that type of dialogue in outstanding political conflicts of today’s world, maybe there would be less violence, war or conflicts. Sometimes we need to make that effort, and that gives you a lot of energy to go on and move on.
The role of women in Iran is often misunderstood by others, but what is your advice to all these women that dream of building a better world like yourself?
I think women have this God-given potential. It might be just because they are created as a woman. Of course men have their great potential as well. I think human beings, both men and women, are bestowed by God, with great potential that can create miracles in a sense due to the energy, faith, perseverance and patience they have. Women are bestowed with very special capabilities, maybe due to the fact that they are the ‘channel of life’. They will continue the process of creation, and I believe that both men and women are responsible in terms of dealing with children and future generations. Maybe the woman has a more anima, as they handle more with passion, with maybe something between the spiritual realm and the realm of the feelings of the human being. There is a lot of positive energy in that realm, and for that reason, women have very special capabilities in terms of both communication skills and negotiation skills.
Instant human relationships are very important, and perhaps women have those communications skills due to the emotional quotient, which is important in politics, in education, in culture and in bringing about transformation and change, which is what we need in today’s political and economic world to reach objectives to preserve the environment, peace and diplomacy. That transformative change is one of the leadership qualities that we require for tomorrow’s world.